Wheat Allergy and Gluten Sensitivity Can Damage Your Health

September 3, 2014 (Updated: January 25, 2018)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Twenty years ago, the phrase “gluten free” was barely a blip on our dietary radar. Now, the phrase is uttered so much that it’s created some confusion about all things gluten related. Perhaps you’ve thought that if you don’t have celiac disease, all this gluten-free talk is malarkey. Before getting into the details, I want to say right up front: I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought wheat and gluten were harmless—even to those who don’t have celiac disease.

In fact, I’m writing this because there are so many dangerous misunderstandings out there and I want to set the record straight on a host of topics:

  • What is gluten?
  • What is celiac disease? Why are people allergic or sensitive to gluten?
  • Can wheat and gluten cause health problems to those who don’t have celiac disease?
  • What are simple ways that you can limit (or eliminate) your wheat and gluten consumption?

So, read on and I’ll get to the bottom of these gluten mysteries…

What is Gluten and Gluten Intolerance?

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the gluten discussion is what gluten actually is. Gluten is not wheat. It’s a protein found in wheat, malt, barley, and rye. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten causes the body’s own immune defenses to attack the hair-like, nutrient-absorbing structures in the small intestine. Over time, this destroys the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. There is no cure. People with celiac disease simply must eliminate all gluten from their diet. Eventually, the body can repair and rebuild the damage caused by the disease.

There is a blood test for celiac disease, but the most accurate way to diagnose it is with a biopsy of the small intestine. I know that sounds unpleasant, but it’s actually a reasonably quick and easy procedure…and you’ll be asleep for it, waking up usually without even discomfort afterwards.

And that leads to the second biggest understanding of the gluten discussion: People without celiac disease presume that consuming gluten doesn’t affect their health. If humans have been eating wheat for thousands of years, why is its gluten content harmful all of a sudden?

First, the American diet contains far more wheat than it did 100 years ago. And second, the wheat we’ve been eating since the 1970s is much different than the wheat our ancestors farmed and harvested (more on this later).

What Wheat and Gluten are Doing to Your Body

Research shows that wheat and other gluten-containing foods cause deadly inflammation, which I believe is at the root of nearly all illnesses. In your brain alone, chronic inflammation can lead to ADHD, schizophrenia, mood swings, migraines, mental malfunctions, and movement problems.

About one percent of Americans, or three million people, suffer from gluten intolerance. But experts estimate that as many as 20 million Americans who do not have celiac disease are sensitive to gluten. It’s very possible that you could be one of those 20 million that needlessly suffer from the above-mentioned side effects and illnesses and have no clue as to the cause.

Another problem is that signs of gluten intolerance and sensitivity are shared by other conditions, so it’s not always easy for you to connect the dots. For example, symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Inflammation
  • Skin rashes
  • Anemia
  • Depression

Now, there’s nothing on that list that would tell the average doctor that gluten is the culprit. Food poisoning can cause similar reactions, as can dozens of other conditions. That’s why gluten intolerance and sensitivity can be so sneaky and dangerous. These illnesses can seem to come out of nowhere, but a decades-long sensitivity to gluten could have been the reason the whole time.

If you’ve been feeling “off” for longer than seems normal, I strongly suggest that you get tested for a gluten allergy. This service can be helpful if you know that something is wrong, but your doctor doesn’t know what’s causing it.

A word of caution. Even if the test comes back negative, you may still have a gluten intolerance. If you want to be 100% sure? Simply cut out ALL gluten for two weeks (cutting back on gluten won’t move the needle—this is an all or nothing endeavor).

If you have a genuine intolerance, you’ll start to feel a difference in just a few days…but it could take a week or two. Either way, if removing gluten from your diet improves the way you feel, there’s your answer.

The Silent Killer in Our Wheat

But let’s assume you are 100% positive that you don’t have gluten intolerance or sensitivity. You can eat as much wheat as you want, right? Wrong!

The vast majority of wheat harvested in the world (especially in the United States) is contaminated with glyphosate. If the word “glyphosate” doesn’t ring a bell, it’s known as the active ingredient in Roundup, the widely used herbicide that is sprayed on nearly every commercial crop that grows out of the ground – especially the fields of wheat, corn, and soy that span for acres in our nation’s farmlands. Glyphosate first entered our food chain in the 1970s and has become so widely used that food manufactures developed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) so that crops can continue to grow despite being doused with a battery of chemicals.

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

I’m convinced these chemicals – especially glyphosate – are slowly and steadily ravaging our bodies. And that’s on top of the damage that gluten can be doing, too.

Here’s a partial list of the health effects linked to glyphosate:

  • Hormone imbalances due to disruption of the endocrine system
  • Breakdown in intestinal wall junctions, leading to leaky gut
  • Vitamin and mineral depletion
  • Reduced detoxification abilities in the liver
  • Difficulty maintaining properly balanced intestinal bacteria

On the surface, those consequences may not seem so terrible. But the truth is, some of these effects can be devastating—if not deadly—drawn out over the course of decades.

Without a change in diet to avoid wheat, those health effects linked to glyphosate can get worse. Eventually, you can end up suffering from nutritional deficiencies, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, kidney failure, and even cancer.

I tell my patients that their best course is to avoid wheat altogether. I know that sounds difficult but I wouldn’t leave you with such a recommendation without sharing with you how to do it.

Simple Tips to Create a Wheat and Gluten-Free Diet

Going wheat and gluten free isn’t as easy as just buying foods labeled “gluten free.” In fact, a lot of foods with a gluten free label are highly processed and filled with sugars and other additives to make them taste “normal.”

For example, gluten-free brownies, cookies, breads, etc. are not healthier than their gluten-filled counterparts. In fact, they tend to be less healthy. If you’re going to remove gluten from the diet, simply avoid the foods that contain gluten. Trust me, you aren’t doing your body any favors by eating brownies, whether they have gluten or not.

Here’s a quick list of popular foods that contain gluten: breads, cereals, pasta, pizza, and beer. Gluten is also lurking in a variety of seemingly innocent food products such as soy sauce, frozen vegetables in sauces, creamy soups and gravies, vitamin and mineral supplements, toothpaste, and many “natural flavorings.” Always read the ingredients list and look to see if a product contains wheat, flour, modified food starch, malt, malt extract, barley, or rye (to name a few).

Going wheat and gluten free seems like a tall task. But the truth is that there are plenty of other grains in your local grocery store. What’s not available near you is widely available online.

Let’s debunk yet another misunderstanding: Giving up wheat means you need to avoid all carbohydrates. Again, wrong. I recommend getting one-third of your calories from complex carbs, including gluten-free, organic grains such as:

  • Rice, both regular and wild
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Montina flour for baking (Montina is a rice grass favored by native Americans)
  • Corn
  • Amaranth
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Oats (as long as they are not contaminated with gluten during processing; look for “gluten-free” on the label)

Also, remember that you should buy organic. That way you aren’t consuming toxins like glyphosate and other herbicides.

Find ways to make smart changes. For example, instead of getting your burger on a gluten-free bun, just get it without the bun! While I think it would be ideal for you to cut 100% of your wheat and gluten intake immediately, I realize that most people have to make slow and steady progress in order to make permanent changes.

To make things simple, think of your task at hand as this: Every bite of food you eat should be either a gluten-free whole grain, vegetable, fruit, or lean protein.

Going Against the Wheat Grain

I hope that I’ve helped debunk the many misunderstandings about gluten—especially as they relate to you daily and long-term health. Making sweeping changes to your diet seems most difficult before you make them. One month later, I bet that you’ll feel so much better with your wheat-free self that you won’t want to go back!

References

Seniff, Stephanie, Ph. D at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Glyphosate Correlations with Disease.” U.S. Congressional Hearing. June 14, 2016.

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